There is extraordinary range of material on display and much that is highly particular and personal – objects representing the acts, beliefs and creativity of particular peoples. The collections also represent the stories of collectors, and of British and European travellers, scientists and collectors. The Museum represents not just other places, and the remote past, but recent British histories too, and the travels and migrations that shaped the global society we now inhabit.
Many objects date back over the centuries, nut MAA is also a museum about contemporary life. The museum works with today’s indigenous communities in all kinds of ways. It is particularly known for its innovative exhibitions that draw contemporary artists into dialogue with the historic collections.
Archaeology and Anthropology are connected and complementary ways of studying humans and human behaviour. Archaeology attempts to reconstruct human behaviour in the past from the traces it has left in the present. Anthropology tends to study human behaviour in the present. Both frequently involve attempting to understand the artefacts made by people in the course of their lives, and it is these artefacts that the museum collects.
Certain objects were taken in an exploitative way – for example, the Benin bronzes from Nigeria, which were seized during a raid by British soldiers in 1897 at the end of the colonial war. Many objects were excavated or collected in the context of colonial rule, so the provenance of some artefacts is ambiguous.
However, the vast majority of objects in the museum were obtained by people who spent extended periods with communities. Objects – including sacred ones – were given as gifts, or sold, or commissioned by the collector on terms considered fair. It is a stereotype that such collections are the spoils of colonial looting. Key figures who established the Museum’s first collections – curator Anatole Von Hügel and anthropologist Alfred Haddon – were firmly opposed to looting.
Anthropologists continue to undertake fieldwork, and some continue to make collections, wherever possible in close collaboration with the communities they work with. The museum is no longer the depository for archaeological material excavated in our region. However, we do selectivey acquire recent finds of special interest for display or research purposes. We no longer collect archaeological material recently excavated from overseas and only accept donations of international material that conforms to the 1972 Unesco Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
MAA’s collections have become more diverse: they might include political posters as well as fine craft objects. We also acquire works by modern artists, including contemporary native artists who visit the museum and are commenting on the museum itself through their art. In some cases this may involve expressing the dispossession many of these peoples have suffered.
The Museum has particularly rich holdings of objects collected by Captain James Cook on his voyages round the world. Between 1912 and 1927, a series of his rare collections made during three 18th-century voyages entered the Museum through various deposits and donations, some via Trinity College. They include more than 200 objects from Tahiti, New Zealand, Tonga, the Austral Islands, Hawaii, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Australia, Tierra del Fuego, Siberia, and North America.
The curators try to maintain good relationships and honest dialogue with members of originating communities, whether it be through field research or visits to the museum by community researchers to study the collections. The museum does not receive many requests for the return of artefacts. “If it got to the stage of someone submitting a repatriation request that we weren’t expecting, we would feel that we weren’t doing our jobs properly,” says curator Mark Elliott.
“That said, some people do want specific objects returned, and it is now widely accepted that human remains should in many cases be sent back to the groups concerned. MAA does not hold anatomical collections, but like many European museums, it has returned objects. When such requests do come we rigorously follow regulations for the disposal or de-accessioning of any of our collections.”
Today many indigenous peoples see objects in prestigious European museums as ambassadors for their cultures. They are less concerned to make claims that objects should be returned, than to build relationships around heritage that are positive for both museums and the communities whose cultures they display.
The Museum has been a base for teaching and research for 125 years. The collections have been built up primarily by students and researchers undertaking archaeological and anthropological fieldwork, and alumni who went on to be colonial administrators, missionaries, navigators etc.
The work of the museum is still primarily funded by the University, and in pursuing this, MAA attempts to build on the experimentation and innovation long associated with the University of Cambridge.